World Cup player-escorts and their dads: 10-year-old Caleb Phillips and his father Derek, along with nine-year-old Mallory Stonier and her father Brandon, at the Flamengo soccer club's practice facility in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on June 20, 2014.
RIO DE JANEIRO — The young children who walk hand in hand with players onto the field before each match are as much a part of the World Cup as epic golazos, ridiculous fan get-ups and stunning upsets.
But who are those lucky youngsters? Where do they come from? How did they get to the biggest sporting event on Earth?
On Friday afternoon here in the World Cup's glamours capital, more than a dozen future player escorts were engaged in a haphazard soccer scrimmage at the headquarters and training facility of Clube de Regatas do Flamengo, Brazil's most popular professional team. Some scored stunning goals; some seemed fuzzy on the soccer rules; most looked happy just to be there. All were between six and 10 years old.
They'd all arrived in Rio from the United States a few days prior, and would soon fly out to Manaus, where each will join hands with an American player to lead the USMNT onto the Arena da Amazonia pitch before a critical Group G matchup against Portugal on Sunday.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Caleb Phillips, a 10-year-old with a nest of curly hair from Oklahoma City, said shyly after the scrimmage at Flamengo. "No one ever gets to do it, really."
Phillips and his peers were selected by McDonald's, one of the World Cup's official sponsors, through a random drawing that was advertised in franchises across the country. Their winning entries were good for an all-expense-paid trip for them and a parent to Brazil for the World Cup and the experience of walking the U.S. players onto the pitch before the Portugal match.
A prior wave had done the same for the USMNT's opener against Ghana on June 16, and another will take their places before the Americans' final group-stage matchup against Germany on June 26.
Every kid you see walk players onto the pitch before World Cup games is part of the McDonald's program, although details of how they were selected and their time in Brazil vary by country. All in all, more than 1,400 will get the experience at this summer's World Cup.
Brandon Stonier of Vancouver, Washington, clicked a banner ad for the McDonald's contest while browsing a soccer website months ago. He signed up, then forgot about it. Several weeks later, he learned he and his nine-year-old daughter Mallory were bound for Brazil.
"Being in the stadium, watching her walk out of the tunnel with the players — I mean, I've always wanted to experience a World Cup game, so that's awesome," he said on Friday. "But for her to experience that, it's just something she'll never forget. That's definitely going to be the best part."
Then there's the incredible story of Cinta Mindes and her six-year-old daughter, Abigail, from West Jordan, Utah. Fifteen years ago, Cinta left her hometown — Manaus — to start a new life in the United States.
She met an American named Jeremy there, and they got married and had Abigail. During a lunch break from his job at a medical supply company, Jeremy hit the local McDonald's drive-through. On a lark, he entered the World Cup player-escort sweepstakes.
Abigail has only been back to mother's hometown once, when she was two years old, and Cinta says her daughter doesn't remember anything from the trip. But when the Mindes family got word of winning the World Cup sweepstakes, it came with a serendipitous placement: Manaus, where Abigail will meet many of her extended family members in earnest for the first time.
This despite the fact that Cinta's backstory was not included in the sweepstakes application.
"I feel blessed," Cinta said on Friday, as Abigail wandered about the Flamengo practice pitch.
Nothing, however, sums up the special experience of walking a soccer hero onto the pitch better than this photo USMNT star Clint Dempsey shared on Instagram just before the World Cup began.
"Just landed," Dempsey captioned the photo upon arriving in Brazil on June 9. "Dope pic to remind us to see the world through the eyes of a kid."